Typical and Emotional development for autistic kids
Humans have six basic emotions – happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. We also experience more complex feelings like embarrassment, shame, pride, guilt, envy, joy, trust, interest, contempt and anticipation.
The ability to understand and express these emotions starts developing from birth.
From around two months, most babies will laugh and show signs of fear. At the age of 6 months, infants develop a social smile. By 12 months, they can wave a bye-bye. A typically developing baby can read your face to get an understanding of what you’re feeling. Most toddlers and young children start to use words to express feelings – although you might see a tantrum or two when their feelings get too big for their words! By about 2-3 years emotional expression peaks hence we hear the phrase “Terrible 2’s” and “Roaring 3’s”.
Throughout childhood and adolescence, most children continue building empathy, self-regulation, and skills in recognizing and responding to other people’s feelings. By adulthood, people are usually able to quickly recognize subtle emotional expressions.
Empathy is the ability to share and understand another person’s feelings. We can see the first signs of empathy in babies – for example, a baby will cry when she hears other babies cry. Toddlers and older children will comfort someone who is upset.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it hard to recognize and control emotions. But their skills in the area of emotional development can be improved, which in turn can help them understand and respond more appropriately to other people.
They often find it hard to:
- Recognize facial expressions and the emotions behind them
- Imitate and respond to emotional expressions
- Understand and control their own emotions
- Understand and interpret emotions – they might lack, or seem to lack, empathy with others.
- Recognizing emotions
Babies who are later diagnosed with ASD can recognize feelings in a similar way to typically developing babies. But these children are slower to develop emotional responses than typically developing children. By 5-7 years, these children can recognize happy and sad, but they have a harder time with subtle expressions of fear and anger. By adolescence, teenagers still aren’t as good at recognizing fear, anger, surprise, and disgust as typically developing teenagers. This lack of understanding also results in impaired social skills and in turn reduced social interaction with peers.
As adults, they continue to have trouble recognizing some emotions.
Babies who are later diagnosed with ASD can show feelings in a similar way to typically developing babies. By school age, children with less severe ASD tend to show their feelings in a similar way to typically developing children, but can find it hard to describe their feelings. They might say that they don’t feel a particular emotion. At the same age, many children with more severe ASD seem to have less emotional expression than typically developing children.
It might look like children with ASD don’t respond emotionally, or their emotional responses might sometimes seem over the top – for example, they might get very angry very quickly.
Responding to and interacting with others
From an early age, children with ASD often pay less attention to other people’s emotional behavior and faces.
They don’t tend to point out interesting things to other people or respond to interesting things that others point out to them. This is called social or joint attention, and the lack of it is one of the early warning signs. Preschoolers continue to find shared attention difficult and often won’t use words to direct someone else’s attention.
Children with ASD often also find it hard to use emotion to manage social interactions. They might show less concern for others and less ability to comfort others or share emotions. They might misread situations and respond with emotions that are off the mark.
For example, a child might not comfort a sibling who falls over, or might laugh because he doesn’t recognize that the child is hurt.
Children may have trouble understanding other people’s emotions because of the way they scan faces.
Adults tend to scan faces in a more random way than typically developing people. They spend less time looking at the eyes and more time focusing on the mouth. This means the information they get from a person’s face tells them less about what that person is feeling.
Encouraging emotional development in children:
You can use everyday interactions to help your child learn about feelings and improve her ability to express and respond to emotions.
Encourage looking and eye contact: You can encourage your child to look at you when you’re interacting by using face masks which are black and white in color. The use of face paints, facial cream and foam create a natural response of the child looking at you. It is definitely beneficial rather than asking the child to look at you. Making circles with the thumb and index finger in front of the eyes like spectacles and also using tissue rolls for initiating eye contact help.
You can also join in with your child with whatever he’s doing. Or if your child asks for something, you could wait until he looks at you and then gives him what he wants.
Get your child’s attention: If you speak to your child and get no response from her, speak again. You might need to do this to get her attention.
Draw your child’s attention to another person: For example, ask someone else to tell your child what you said, to draw your child’s attention to another person who’s speaking.
Be responsive: Respond to your child’s emotions by saying, for example, ‘You’re smiling, you must be happy’.
Dramatize an emotion: Enact out emotion in a real-life situation. A structured situation helps them to understand emotion. E.g. You did such good work. That’s a star for you. Lovely. Association of a situation with an emotion needs generalization. This also helps them to frequently use it in the correct situation.
Label emotions in natural contexts: Using emotion cards displaying real faces and in a situation helps. E.g. child is crying because he is hurt makes more sense than an emoticon. Abstract structure of emotion needs to be broken down for real-life meaning.
Generalization of emotions: It is important for parents and professionals working with children to transfer the learned emotion in a real-life situation. That helps the child to express it more consistently.
Worksheets and emotion stickers can also be used.
Visual charts and schedules for consistency of performance help.
-Dr. Namita Shenai Vadhavkar
Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Mumbai.